Twenty-five years ago, an African American man made history in the Hambletonian.
by Dean A. Hoffman
A quarter century ago, a middle-aged African American man named Milt Smith went to New Jersey carrying an almost impossible burden.
He was the trainer of two trotting colts entered into the Hambletonian, where history is made only once a year. The crucible of the Hambletonian is the most unforgiveable and unforgettable pressure a trainer can endure. One mistake and it’s “wait until next year.”
Except that Milt Smith was training for Bob Key, an owner with a reputation of discarding trainers like people with colds discard Kleenex.
But in one of the most memorable moments in Hambletonian history, the colts trained by Smith won both eliminations and final of that ‘93 Hambletonian.
The winner lived up to his name — American Winner.
Hambletonian Day in 1993 was a veritable festival of red, white, and blue. Driver Ron Pierce’s colors were red, white, and blue and the fleece cover on the colt’s martingale was red, white and blue.
In the week prior to the Hambletonian, trainer Smith ran the gauntlet of countless media interviews, including national TV. He handled each one with implacable calm and professionalism. Smith carried this all off despite knowing there was a million tons of pressure bearing down on him.
Smith, a native of Cadiz in eastern Ohio, had trained horses that won only two races and $67,015 in 1992. Now in 1993 he found himself training Key’s horses in the critical prep period before the Hambletonian. He was horseman enough to know that all the hoopla and hype doesn’t matter if the horse isn’t primed properly. And Milt Smith had both American Winner and stablemate Hi Noon’s Star honed to a razor’s edge.
American Winner and Pine Chip, two of the favorites, drew into the same elimination along with the European invader Toss Out. American Winner and Pine Chip were developing a rivalry that would endure throughout the season.
Hi Noon Star won his elimination over King Lavec, and Smith had made history. But the best was yet to come.
Pierce sent American Winner to the front down the backstretch in their elimination as Toss Out dropped in the pocket. Pine Chip, starting from an outside position, steadily worked his way up on the outside in the final turn.
Champion German reinsmen Heinz Wewering saw Pine Chip coming on the outside and began to ease out Toss Out before he got trapped.
“AH! AH! AH! HEINZ!” yelled Campbell with the onrushing Pine Chip. Wewering took Toss Out back to the inside.
But there was no catching American Winner on his day of destiny. He glided to the wire like a sprite, his hooves barely touching the ground, it seemed. The long journey took a toll on Pine Chip and he ceded second place to Toss Out.
In the final, Pierce shot American Winner to the front down the backstretch as Pine Chip once again was forced into the outer flow behind Hi Noon Star and he simply could not reach the pacesetter.
As he crossed the wire, Pierce thrust his whip into the air in jubilation and others reflected what a remarkable feat it was for Milt Smith, largely unknown in the sport a few months ago, to sweep the Hambletonian heats.
American Winner had soundness issues thereafter and met Pine Chip a few weeks later at Syracuse. He didn’t look too sporty warming up, and Pine chip’s trainer Chuck Sylvester said, “I thought we had him then.”
But American Winner gritted his way through the pain and triumphed over Pine Chip in a memorable effort.
“I knew then that American Winner was a great horse,” Sylvester said years later.
It was, however, a Pyrrhic victory as American Winner was never quite the same.
American Winner was no match for the powerful Pine Chip when the Grand Circuit rolled into The Red Mile. He lost the first week and then again the second week in the Kentucky Futurity, breaking stride in the second heat.
They met for the final time in the Breeders Crown a few weeks later at Pompano and I stood with Pine Chip’s trainer Chuck Sylvester as we watched American Winner warm up. He was nodding his head with every stride.
“Just saying a polite hello,” said Sylvester. The head nodding told us that American Winner was not right, and the race confirmed that as Pine Chip won.
Milt Smith later returned to his native Ohio and continued the low-profile career that marked much of his life. But no one can ever take away his 1993 Hambletonian triumph.
American Winner retired to Hanover Shoe Farms and in his first season sired Viking Kronos, a superstar on the track and in the stud barn in Europe. Soon after the foals of Viking Kronos began to win so impressively, he earned the accolade as “the Valley Victory of Europe.”
American winner also sired the 2000 Hambletonian runner-up Credit Winner, a winner of almost $1.5 million.
As a broodmare sire, American Winner’s credits include Muscle Hill, and no more need be said about his greatness.
American Winner was near and dear to the heart of his co-breeder and owner Bob Key, and Key once told me that whenever he gets a bit down on the horse business, he simply watches replays of the ‘93 Hambletonian.